Qualifications on Twenty Things Said About Dover Cake

Matthew Gavin Frank

(It’s just cake, really. Regular cake).

                                                  *

(This is a choice between butter and margarine, between what your mother would call a weeping cow, your father [when referencing any udder, or, as your girlfriend would say, every udder], would call the squeezing of the dregs of AquaFresh over the Tynex® Classic Standard Round Nylon Toothbrush Filaments he helps to manufacture at the DuPont factory over in Wilmington, Delaware, a fifty-four-minute commute from your house in Dover, where there’s still a half-slice of Dover Cake left in the fridge [you ate the other half last night after smoking the sort-of decriminalized medical marijuana your girlfriend jokingly calls Freon Lycra after the chemicals/polymers her own father helped to manufacture at the DuPont factory over in Wilmington—a mere fifty-one-minute commute for him—before he started getting the nosebleeds, and before he self-diagnosed—only half-jokingly—as having Haloalkane Poisoning, which you and your girlfriend searched to no avail on the Internet before she began to cry all over your Adam’s apple—the one your father called an Adam’s Crabapple, another example of his passive-aggressive feminizing of you after you quit the Dover High wrestling team because you were sick of being a Dover Senator and didn’t give a shit about a letterman’s jacket and, even though your father ranted and raved, ever-reminding you that you have now sullied the names of famed athletic DHS alumni like Carl Ergenzinger, who went on to play for the Houston Astros, and Renie Martin, who went on to play for the San Francisco Giants—teams whose names your father associates with Real Men; with outer space and propulsion and barrel chests and swinging dicks—you still got in his face and told him you wanted to draw and that you wanted to act and you reminded him that R. Crumb was also a DHS alumnus to which he responded, “That pornographer?!” and that Teri Polo also graduated with honors from DHS, to which you assumed your father’s reply would include the word “bitch,” but instead was relegated to a wrinkled forehead to which he held his hand in such a way that you noticed, in the light of the refrigerator, the lattice of scar tissue mapping his wrist to his fingernails, so you felt obligated to feel bad for him for the few seconds it took him to muster, “Teri Polo?  Teri fucking Polo?!”—and you wiped the hot wetness from your girlfriend’s face with the back of your own unscarred hand, and smoked three drags each from the Freon Lycra in the backyard beneath the dead white oak that your mother implored your father to cut down because “It’s bound to hurt somebody,” to which your father refused because, “It’s the biggest fucking tree in Delaware, Margaret,” and as the weed anchored itself into your bloodstream like a Classic Standard Round Nylon Toothbrush Filiment into a Classic Standard Molten Plastic Toothbrush Base with Classic Standard Injection Port—which your father also helps to fabricate—she buried her face into your neck again, but this time was laughing and licking and you felt so big and so good, as if you had Ergenzinger and Martin and Crumb and Polo inside of you, allowing you to feel like a Senator! and allowing you to flip the bird in a direction you mistake for Wilmington, but are quite certain is the bedroom window of your sleeping parents—your Dover Cake Contest-winning mother and toothbrush-making father—and allowing you to know—just know—that your destiny lies outside of Dover, and maybe even all of Delaware, in a place where fathers are defined beyond their chemical/polymer of specialization, and cakes are defined by more than a shaving of mace into the batter] that your father now calls, “a measly, lousy half-slice of motherfucking cake?!” before shoveling said measly lousy half-slice into his mouth in a sound that reminds you of an asthmatic chainsaw struggling to turn over but only burping blue smoke, of every tool that can’t cut a fucking thing down—not anymore).

                                                  *

(This is what the locals called the Delaware River 348 years after it was named after Sir Thomas West, the 3rd British Baron De La Warr, 37 years after it was nicknamed the Acropolitan Sinkhole when the Corinthos tanker upchucked 11,000,000 gallons of crude oil into it, and one year after it was nicknamed DuPont’s Outhouse after the company was fined for dumping hydrogen chloride, titanium tetrachloride, iron chloride, titanium ore, overflow wastewater treatment chemicals, and various other substances whose molecules your father has inside of him, into the current that Henry Hudson once, in 1609, called, “Great”). 

                                                  *

(This is how your mother refers to the stiff peaks of the egg whites before she asks them to accept the flour, the sugar, the butter [or margarine], the milk, the mooing of the cows—a sound she fears will make the cake fall, will make your father angry if she does not win the contest this year, does not come home with the check for one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars). 

                                                  *

(This is how she refers to the mace, which makes you think of evergreen trees, and the dry, lacy, reddish things that cover its seeds. To make this cake, she says, we have to undress all things egg-shaped. We have to pulverize the thinnest of our clothes, trust that the cake will keep our bodies warm. This is also why you think of your girlfriend’s favorite bra, and why you think that it’s your favorite too. It has something to do with the state).

                                                  *

(This chemical/polymer, on which DuPont makes over $250,000/day, was said to have been invented by the 19th century French chemist, Chevreuil, who accidentally “discovered” a fatty acid with such a lustrous appearance that he actually swooned in his laboratory, ran his hands beneath his lab coat, and cried, margarique!, a word he knew derived from the Greek margaron, or “a pearl.” This pearly spread soon became the butter substitute that lent its own name to other things pearly [actually or metaphorically]—the flower marguerite, the cocktail margarita, and Margaret, your mother, who curses the complaining cows now, threatens to slaughter them all and start using the margarine again).

                                                  *

(This, if only because you decide that you never want to set foot outdoors again, though this decision will make it difficult to leave Dover).

                                                  *

(Because Delaware seems so flat on an otherwise spherical earth, your mother bakes her Dover Cake in a single round loaf pan, just to remind herself where she really lives).

                                                  *

(This is not the real Earth).

                                                  *

(This, because you think of the nutmeg, the seed undressed of its mace. Your father will wonder why you’re so cold, why you need the three blankets. He will fake-punch you, arrest his fist an inch from your face.  When you flinch, he will say, “two for flinching,” then real-punch you twice on the arm, right where you just got your allergy shots). 

                                                  *

(You will tell him nothing of how you plan [and will fail] to self-asphyxiate with said blankets after he goes to sleep).

                                                  *

(The mace is the aril of the nutmeg. The aril is known as the “false-fruit”).

                                                  *

(This, because she had a heavy hand with the sugar today. That, because your father came home from work with half-a-left pinky and a nosebleed she tried to stanch with paper towels printed with roses).

                                                  *

(You wonder if it’s the flower or the blood that does the lying). 

                                                  *

(If the one ingredient that distinguishes your state’s cake is “false,” no wonder we expect the picture of the flower to have a beautiful smell). 

                                                  *

(Dover Cake is disappointing).

                                                  *

(You think this only because your girlfriend shows you the original recipe she ripped from the already overdue Dover Public Library book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats [1832], authored by the anonymous Miss Leslie, a recipe that includes in its ingredient list many things which neither your mother nor any of the other contest regulars use: things like one glass of brandy and ½ glass of rosewater and, your girlfriend’s favorite, ½ teaspoon of pearl-ash dissolved in a little vinegar.  You imagine briefly, your mother on fire).

                                                  *

(The oil from the nutmeg and its mace is also used as a major ingredient in cough syrups and toothpastes. You wonder when these will become the new state dessert.  Your mother wonders, briefly, if Dover Cake is medicinal, if all of those prisoners who smuggled the spice into their cells ingested it for the flavor or the euphoria).

                                                  *

(Your girlfriend performs this act while whispering vinegar names—rice, sherry, apple cider, champagne. By the way your mother screams in the kitchen, you know she’s burnt herself on the element again).

                                                  *

(You scream this together into the wind coming off the Delaware. Afterwards, she tells you that, compared to other spices, ground mace is the least likely to clot).

                                                  *

(You won’t notice, until tomorrow, that someone has penciled FUCK DOVER into the bottom left corner of the recipe’s page, just beneath the imperative, “Wrap it in a thick cloth and keep it from the air”).  

                                                  *

(You erase this, just to rewrite it in your own hand).

                                                  *

(Here, cake, and those who prepare it, suffocate and burn. Here, we forget that an entire people were massacred or enslaved so others could steal their nutmeg and mace, shave it down to its dust over our cakes).

                                                  *

(You scream this alone into the river wind. She’s not here to tell you that the process by which butter is pressed from nutmeg and its mace is called expression).

                                                  *

(Because Lofland may have written, The world goes pink with buffoonery, billions of squirrels running away. In their cheeks, the nutmace arranges itself like dog stars, waits for the constellation that looks like Dover, or its sweetest confection, your girlfriend speaks equations into your ear that it would take DuPont, or a stocking, to solve. Canicula.  Ligature. Through the walls, you hear your father’s sharp cough, your mother’s electric mixer speed to a whine. She ties it over your throat, and you see the pink squirrels. You think of this earth as the wound that won’t stop bleeding).

                                                  *

(Because of this polluted river, our un-lacy coverings, we must find our autoerotica in the eating of cake, and the subsequent shunning thereof. You wonder what it is exactly that your father is choking on).

                                                  *

(The oven timer dings. We wonder if we’re not breathing enough). 

                                                  *

(Because of this year’s contest theme, your mother decides to frost her Dover Cake with the continents. It cools on the counter and you swear that the bellowing cows make the steam dance like an aurora).

                                                  *

(Myristicin Poison is pronounced My Wrist is in Poison. For this reason, your mother never eats raw mace, compulsively checks her pulse. For this reason, it is recommended that one not feed Dover Cake to dogs or to the livestock).

                                                  *

(By this, you mean, blood. By that, you mean, in Elizabethan times, it was believed that mace could ward off the plague...).

                                                  *

(She takes second place to a woman from Magnolia, another woman named Margaret. The last thing your father thinks about is flowers. Your mother sits at the kitchen table, trying not to hear the cows. It’s late. You wait for your girlfriend to call. Your father flops facedown onto the lemony tabletop. His body heaves. His left hand—the one with the bad pinky—reaches forward for the half-eaten cake, desiccating beneath the plastic wrap he also helped to fabricate. His fingers reach across hard batter and frosting for the east coast of North America, but don’t quite make it. This ocean once had brandy and rosewater in it, you think—only the delicious things we meant to spill into it).

                                                  *

(But, of course, if we ingest too much of it, mace can have psychoactive effects. We can succumb to the delirium. Those may not be real cows).

                                                  *

(By toxicity, you mean, this landscape).

                                                  *

(Because of this, she reaches for his hand, then thinks better of it. His body heaves, waits for the blood, or for the batter to re-soften. His hand is lost at sea. There’s a storm coming to this cake. You’re waiting for something too, but neither one of them says anything about family, nor about how much mace is too much mace. You hold your breath. You think of history joining with the living room, the factory, library, high school cafeteria where dessert every Friday is Dover Cake, of roses meeting eggs, the commingling of cows and chemists. You do not let your breath go. Together, DuPont says, we can feed the world).

Author Portrait

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (forthcoming 2014 from W.W. Norton: Liveright), Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop; and the chapbooks, Four Hours to Mpumalanga and Aardvark.  He teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North.  This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish liver ice cream.  It paired well with onion bagels.

View the website of Matthew Gavin Frank